6 – Intercultural Competence and the Inclusive Classroom

Shawn Walker

English language learners (ELL) come from varying backgrounds, with their own unique reasons for learning English as an Additional Language (EAL). As new immigrant students arrive in Canada, classroom demographics are changing and becoming increasingly diversified. In order to welcome and effectively support ELLs, teachers must strive to understand their students as individuals and foster an inclusive learning environment within the classroom and the school community.

Understanding Culture

The metaphor of an iceberg is frequently used by theorists to represent and understand culture. Helmer and Eddy (2012) indicate that the small portion of the iceberg above the waterline represents aspects of culture that are the most visible, such as “physical characteristics, distinctive styles of clothing, food, art and, of course, language” (p. 33). While these are undoubtedly important aspects of culture, they aren’t the entire picture of an individual’s identity. Below the metaphorical waterline sits the “less visible, often nonverbal, aspects of culture that, to a large extent, define our behaviour toward and the ways we communicate with others” (p.33). These aspects are rooted in moral values and social beliefs that an individual holds, based on cultural upbringing. For teachers, recognizing and understanding these underlying values and beliefs is important because they are what guide their students’ approach to daily life (p.91). However, “it is often hardest to step outside oneself and reach out to others because, in attempting to do this, we are trying to override the mostly unconscious patterns that regulate how we live our lives” (p.91). A responsible educator will not shrink away from this challenge, but will meet their students with an open mind, being sure to emphasize that “no culture is “better” than another, but that cross-cultural understanding is an important facet of learning a language” (Brown & Lee, 2015, p. 82).

At the forefront of understanding the various cultures in the classroom is the concept of intercultural competence. A teacher with intercultural competence has the “ability to understand, empathize with, and/or function in a culture or cultures other than one’s L1 culture” (Brown/& Lee, 2015, p. 634). In a general classroom that includes ELLs, or a designated EAL classroom comprised only of ELLs, the teacher must treat each student as an individual and take into account that “[s]tudents may view the process of education and each other in very different ways from what we may be tempted to assume; yet they may…look to us to help them find their way in the new culture and language in which they find themselves suddenly immersed” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 41). By acknowledging that students are individuals with unique cultural backgrounds and motivations, teachers can begin to adjust their instructional strategies, planning, and assessment to meet the needs of their students. This awareness prevents educators from making assumptions based on superficial observations, which has the adverse effect of alienating students and compromising meaningful student-teacher relationships.

Promoting Culture in the School and Classroom

An interculturally competent teacher who promotes an inclusive classroom environment through cultural awareness and respect from the first day of school provides a positive example for their students. It is often the simplest forms of respect that can have positive or negative implications, depending on how students are approached. An example of this is addressing a student by their proper name and form. This may seem obvious, but often times names that are perceived as foreign or unfamiliar can intimidate the teacher. Coelho (2012) notes that “names are an important part of our identity and must be respected” (p. 156). This is where a teacher must lead by example by making an effort to learn each students’ name, just as they would learn those of their English-speaking students. It is best to avoid nicknames, or short forms, since it can signal an unwillingness to learn on the teacher’s part. Students who see their teacher making an effort will be encouraged to do the same. This is also incredibly important when it is time to meet parents, as some cultures, such as in South Korea, lead with their surnames, followed by their given names. Showing this cultural understanding helps foster positive relationships between parents, students, and the teacher.

Ultimately, the goal of the interculturally competent educator is to create interculturally competent learners. After all, the teacher is only one individual in the room. Utilizing peer supports for those second language learners (L2L) helps build community in the classroom and integrate those L2Ls into the social dynamic of the classroom. Coelho (2012) states, “[y]our positive attitude may not only establish a climate of support, but also enable students of the dominant language group to see language learning in a positive light” (p.158). The effects from this benefit not only the L2Ls, but also the native English speakers of the group.

The classroom is but one room in an entire building. Coelho (2012) discusses how, ideally, the school will take a multilingual approach that “raises language awareness, celebrates linguistic diversity, and helps students and families view their own languages as assets just as valuable as the language of the school” (p. 202). Coelho also discusses the idea of community languages, meaning recognizing all of the languages that are present within a school’s population. Through open communication with parents, the school can encourage parents to maintain the first language (L1) as it “provides a necessary foundation for learning the school language” (p. 202). The school’s goal should be to make the community languages visible, so students see themselves reflected in the school. Simple solutions such as printing signs, notices, and posters in the community languages provide opportunities for visibility. It also encourages parental involvement as it “enables [parents] to contribute to the school rather than feel excluded” because of a lack of ability in the school language (p. 203). Supporting community languages shows that a school holds a positive language policy toward the L1s of its students, demonstrating additive bilingualism, “where a language is held in prestige by the community” (Brown & Lee, 2015, p. 169).

Benefits of an Inclusive Learning Environment

One main variable in ELL success is motivation. Referring back to the idea of language policy mentioned above, it is important for students to feel as though they are welcome in a new country, and more directly, in their new school. Paraphrasing the work of Lo Bianco, Brown and Lee (2015), we might ask, “How does this policy or status affect the motivation and purpose of your students?” and note that having a language policy in place that celebrates the L1s of ELLs is “extremely important because it has direct and substantial consequences for society, economics, education, and culture” (p.168). A learner’s L1 is a major component of identity and a “source of cultural pride and self-esteem” (Coelho, 2012, p. 196). A student who feels that their culture is accepted by the dominant culture will be motivated to engage in language learning. Stephen Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis proposes that there is a “mechanism that allows or restricts the processing of input” based on a number of factors, such as the learning environment, peer and teacher interactions, as well as personal factors such as anxiety (Saville-Troike & Barto, 2017, p. 214). The Ontario Capacity Building Series on culturally responsive pedagogy states that “[i]n order to ensure that all students feel safe, welcomed and accepted, and inspired to succeed in a culture of high expectations for learning, schools and classrooms must be responsive to culture” (Culturally responsive pedagogy, p. 2). The goal of the inclusive classroom is to provide a welcoming environment that reduces anxiety and creates positive relationships between peers where students can be themselves and feel comfortable taking risks with language.

There are also cognitive advantages to encouraging the continued development of ELLs first languages. Citing the work of Genesee, Coelho (2012) notes that multilingual children are better at problem solving, more creative, and express more tolerant attitudes toward others than those children who are fluent in only one language (p. 199). Coelho also points out that “students who can think in more than one language appear to be more flexible thinkers and develop cognitive skills that have a positive effect on their overall cognitive abilities” (p. 198). A supportive learning environment where students are encouraged to take pride in their culture helps to accelerate the learning of the L2. Promoting multilingualism does not just benefit L2 learners, however. Coelho asserts that valuing the cultural and language backgrounds of all students and promoting bilingualism as a “worthy and attainable goal… [the] speakers of the dominant language or school language may be encouraged to learn additional languages” (p. 202).

The ultimate goal of the classroom teacher should be to “make language [and cultural] diversity normal rather than unusual, exotic, or problematic” (Coelho, 2012, p. 204). A heightened level of awareness is needed to be an interculturally competent educator. As educators “we must probe and question, and never assume anything, as we work to increase our understanding of the various backgrounds the students bring to our classrooms” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 69).

Rationale and Reflection

I chose to write about intercultural competence and an inclusive classroom environment for a variety of reasons. After taking ECUR 291 and reading through the section on language policy in Teaching by Principles by H. Douglas Brown and Heekyeong Lee, I was struck by the use of the example of the United States and the general “English only” policy that most people hold there. Being from the US, this put into academic language something that I always knew existed. It helped me understand the major difference between the way the US and Canada view second languages. I never shared the view of “English only” while I grew up in the US. I always figured people were just trying to get by and do their best in a new country with a new language. This course (and the EAL program in general) has taught me that there is a huge correlation between ability in the L1 and successful acquisition of the L2. It has also helped me understand the need to be reflective of my own views since I am looking at the world through my own unique lens that is not universal. In a way I always knew that, but understanding the implications on the success of students learning a L2 has really helped drive that point home for me.

In practice, I believe that intercultural competence and inclusive classrooms are important concepts in education. The reality here in Canada is that teachers will be faced with classrooms full of students from diverse backgrounds. Even if those students are English speakers, there is still a need to be aware of cultural differences and commonalities. That is part of being an empathetic teacher that is approachable. It is important to not be discouraged by differences and to find common ground in order to better understand your students and their motivations. Living and teaching in a predominantly English-speaking Métis community in northern Saskatchewan has shown me how important it is to understand the culture of my students. Even in a rural village of 1,500 people, there is still diversity,  although perhaps not to the extent that can be seen in a city school. Of my 25 students last year, 23 were Métis, one was Irish, and one was from India. My Métis students were always interested to hear how things were different in Ireland or India during lessons. During a Language Arts lesson on sports, we talked about how Canada’s major sport is ice hockey, while places like Ireland and India, where there isn’t much snow, enjoy rugby and cricket. We watched videos of all three sports on YouTube and compared them using a Venn diagram. It was such a simple lesson, but one they all remembered on the last day of school.

In my future practice as an EAL teacher I will strive to “build bridges” as Helmer and Eddy (2012) point out in their text Look at Me When I Talk to You. From the earliest days of my Bachelor of Education program, I was always told to build rapport and cultural understanding with students and parents. Helmer and Eddy’s text helped clearly illustrate the importance of this concept. Now to immediately contradict what I just said, I could appreciate the note on page 68 where Helmer and Eddy note that in some cultures parents only interact with the teacher when there is a problem. Aside from behavioural issues, the parents put the full trust in the teacher to do their job. It is easy to see that teacher education programs have the best intentions when saying to have parental contact, but it isn’t as simple as just calling up the parents. A teacher needs to be aware of their students’ cultural norms surrounding the relationship between school and home before making any assumptions!

The concept of intercultural competence will make me become a more reflective practitioner when it comes to cultural awareness with my ELLs. My goal going forward is to develop my instructional strategies to support all language learners and continue to learn more about the diverse cultures with which I will work.



Brown, D. H., & Lee, H. (2015). Teaching by principles: An integrative approach to language pedagogy (4th ed.) White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Coelho, E. (2012). Language and learning in multilingual classrooms: A practical approach. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Culturally responsive pedagogy: Towards equity and inclusivity in Ontario schools. In K-12 Capacity Building Series: Secretariat Special Edition #35. Ontario Ministry of Education, Student Achievement Division (2013).  Retrieved from: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/CBS_ResponsivePed agogy.pdf

Helmer, S., & Eddy, C. (2012). Look at me when I talk to you: EAL learners in non-EAL classrooms. Toronto, ON: Pippin Teacher’s Library.

Saville-Troike, M. & Barto, K. (2017). Introducing second language acquisition (3rd ed.) Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.